Have you turned down dinner with friends, or bowling, or mini-golf, or skydiving because you’d rather stay home and read? Have you finished multi-volume book series that were never once made into a movie? Do you think the best president or king would probably be an English teacher? Do you go to book stores and libraries to hide from TV screens and texting troglodytes? Do you go through reading glasses like marathoners go through shoes?
If so, then you are a serious reader.
As a serious reader, you probably have a list of books that’s longer than you are tall. Maybe you brag about rare or expensive books in your collection. You frequent bookstores, libraries, and online book sellers just to “look around.” Perhaps you scorn text-messaging for ruining the English language. However you have come to be a serious reader, you’ve experienced the “reader’s high,” ascending into ethereal planes of understanding enraptured in the rolling scroll of the written word.
For some of us, reading isn’t so much a chore but a privilege, a real source of delight, rich with discovery, passion, and learning. If you are a serious reader, or you aspire to be a better reader, or you just enjoy reading once in a while, then this list is for you. These tools are the indispensable hardware for anyone who wants to take their reading seriously.
1. How to Read a Book
Serious readers are always trying to read thought-provoking and important books, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to read such books. How to Read a Book is a how-to manual for such readers.
This book stands out from the (small) crowd of “how to” reading books because it’s not only a time-tested, well-loved, widely read, and highly effective primer on how to read at the mastery level, but this book is also written by Mortimer Adler, one-time editor of the Encyclopedia Brittanica as well as the luminary behind the “Great Books of Western Civilization” series, and by Charles Van Doren, another editor of Encyclopedia Brittanica and author of the epic catalogues, The History of Knowledge and The Joy of Reading. These two men might have been the most well-read men in the Western World at the time of writing. So when they produce a text about how to read, we would do well to hear them out.
Think of this book as a step-ladder in the library. It will help you to scale to higher shelves, those that less mature readers couldn’t reach. This book empowers you to read effectively, slowly, and deliberately so that you can fully grasp even the more challenging books. Yet the authors readily admit that some books merit only a glance, a skim, or a speed-read.
While How to Read a Book is the flagship for mastery-level reading, there are other how-to books that are worth a read. Serious readers may also be interested in James Sire’s How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension (Shaw books, 2010; 192 pgs.). Or readers can bolster their reading speed with a speed reading course or books. Bear in mind that speed reading typically sacrifices quality and comprehension, and there is some debate about the effectiveness of speed reading overall. That said, speed reading, generally, should be reserved for less-important books that are easy-to-read and aren’t worth “savoring.” Meanwhile, Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read A Book is valuable for all levels of reading, fast or slow, elementary or analytic.
2. Great Books
As “foodies” are to food, so serious readers are to books. They love great books. They are enthusiasts with strong likes and dislikes, and lots of opinions about what separates masterpieces from mediocre reading. Serious readers are always searching for great books just as foodies are always looking for great restaurants and recipes.
In one sense, “great books” means the Great Books included in the “Western Canon.” Perhaps the most widely accepted list of great books is Adler and Van Doren’s “Great Books of Western Civilization” (which is also listed in the back of How to Read a Book). Allan Bloom and Susan Wise Bauer have their lists too. If those choices are too “western” for your tastes, you can check out the “Eastern Canon” from St. John’s College or see Fadimer and Major’s “World Canon.” And there are many other lists to choose from. These lists collect some of the most timeless, universal, and important books in world history into a vetted list. These lists represent hard fought, long standing, expert opinions on which books constitute the most important and illuminating books ever written. Whenever you finish a book, you can consult the canon of great books to see suggestions for your next read. If you are ambitious, you can treat one of these lists as a lifetime reading plan.
In another sense, “great books” refers to important books in a given field, or just quality books that are important to you. Adler and Van Doren’s list is fine, but it’s not a papal mandate. You don’t necessarily have to lean on the “experts” to tell for yourself what is a “great book.” Those lists are invaluable, and the expert opinions are priceless, but there are just too many books to choose from, and too much art and knowledge circulating for those experts to survey. “Great books” can mean any books that readers consider to be “great.”
3. Fun books
Serious readers have a thirst for knowledge, but they also enjoy reading. An endless pile of thick difficult books can overwhelm readers and suck the joy out of the activity. It’s the culinary equivalent of all main courses and no dessert. Even serious readers sometimes like to read short, artful books, off-topic texts, and easy-reads to break up the monotony. It’s not that big important books are “bad” but rather that serious readers are omnivores. We feed on a wide range of reading options. We can enjoy a main diet of meaty goodness—like War and Peace or Ulysses—but we can lose a taste for those dishes, or get tired of chewing such laborious literature, if that’s all we’re reading. A simple solution is to balance your reading plan with some light sweet reads that you consume for the sheer sake of enjoyment.
4. The Joy of Reading By Charles Van Doren (Sourcebooks, 2008; 525 pgs).
If you were to travel the world visiting beautiful sites and imbibing rich experiences, you will eventually need a guide for your journey. In the literary world, Charles Van Doren is one of the best guides a reader can ask for. If Great Books lists are a map to the literary world, Van Doren’s The Joy of Reading is your tour guide.
In The Joy of Reading (subtitled A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World’s Best Authors and Their Works) Van Doren brings together brief synopses of each major literary era (i.e., the Greek Golden age, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc.) and short biographies on all 189 authors from Homer all the way to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. The text reflects the passion of a man who’s married his life and career to the written word. Serious readers can appreciate and draw inspiration from van Doren’s passion. The Joy of Reading is designed as a parallel text for the Great Books series, and can be read cover-to-cover or selectively as a reference work bolstering any books in the Western Canon. However, you use this book, it should lend depth and personal context to your reading list, helping you hear the authorial voice in each book.
5. Kindle App and E-reader
Futurists have long predicted a “paperless society.” Newspapers and magazines are transitioning to digital formats. Whole schools are converting into online classrooms. Any surviving libraries are typically stocking more DVD’s and CD’s than books. And if it weren’t for online shopping, and Mother’s Day cards, conventional mail would be completely replaced with email and texting. According to Thad McyIlroy, of TheFutureOfPublishing.com, book publishing has shifted in favor of self-publishing and small market publishers, often with “print-on-demand” books and online warehouse distributors. While the printed word is holding strong, the Digital age has sent tremors through the print shop. Publishers must change or die. Fortunately, even if paper books went the way of the Dodo bird, your literary passions could fly just fine thanks to Kindle. Many serious readers don’t yet have a Kindle-style reader. I get it. There’s something about a physical book, the feel and smell of paper, the weight in your hands, the iconic image of coffee shop book worms, that delights our literary aesthetic. But you can have both! I do. I use a Kindle app on my phone for light reading, and use physical books for the more serious study. My wife uses the e-reader so much I can never get my hands on it. With e-books, we can access all our kindle downloads (including imported PDF’s) through a Kindle e-reader, or the kindle app on our phones and computers. After many years resisting the e-book phenomenon, I finally submitted when I realized that e-books were often cheaper than books, there’s no shipping costs, countless books and articles never reach a print-format, and of course, the “glare-free” screen prevents “computer vision syndrome.” I recommend a Kindle app for all your devices (computer, smart phone, or table) to maximize your options. But the glare-free screen e-readers from Kindle (or the “off-brand” models: Nook, and Kobo) are also highly recommended.
6. A Dictionary
Dictionaries aren’t just for spell-checking elementary competitions. Dictionaries give normal people like you and me access to the bewildering bits of unknown language peppered across our books, words like “bewitching,” “resplendent,” “statuesque,” and “pulchritudinous” (they all mean “pretty” but I wouldn’t recommend calling your mother “pulchritudinous”).
Serious readers can’t help but cross new words. Sometimes you can just skip past them, infer their meaning from context, and keep rolling. But other times you really need to look up the word or you’ll be lost. You may use Dictionary.com, or Wikipedia, or if you have $1,000 to spare, you can go all the way and line your shelves with the complete 20 volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary. However you do it, make sure you have access to a good dictionary.
What’s a good dictionary? Well that depends on the kind of book you’re reading. If you’re reading a medical journal, you should use a medical dictionary like Taber’s or Mosby’s. If you are reading legal commentary, then a legal dictionary will serve you better, such as Black’s Law Dictionary. The standard general reference book is the Oxford English Dictionary. If you don’t have an extra $1,000 lying around, then you can usually access it through your local school, or library, or an online subscription at OED.com. You can also cross-reference different free and online dictionaries. Where these dictionaries agree, you have a good idea of what that word means. And of course, if you aren’t doing an extensive word study, a basic abridged dictionary—like Merriam-Websters or the American Heritage Dictionary—is fine for many cases.
7. Other Reference books (commentaries, encyclopedias)
Every good book has layers of history, biography, and circumstance undergirding the text. Serious readers don’t just want to finish books, though that’s rewarding too. They eventually read books to master them, and that means digging through the deepening layers of significance that made those books great in the first place. Important books often have an array of commentators, critics, and articles analyzing them for all their parts. The insights gained from these sources are like newly discovered doors and windows. They give the reader more points of access to the treasures inside. Besides a good dictionary, there are commentaries, encyclopedias, critiques, and introductions. Depending on the book you’re reading, any or all of these can help you understand its content better. Typically the “great books” have divergent opinions and controversies swirling about them, and they have contextual features that you wouldn’t know just by reading the book. If you are tackling Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, then you’d do well to read an introduction to Thomas Aquinas, or an encyclopedia article on “Thomism” (the name of his philosophical school). If you are reading Marx and Engles’ Communist Manifesto, then you might need to read encyclopedia articles on capitalism and industrialism. You would also do well to check out a commentary on this earth-shaking book. There are many good ones to choose from.
8. A Reading Room
Serious readers need a place to read. If it’s light-hearted casual reading, then the location isn’t terribly important. Park benches, diners, and Ferris wheel cabins will do. But serious readers eventually need more than that, they need an environment suited for intense reading. If you are going to dig into a meaty text with big ideas or a complicated story, then you need a setting where you are comfortable enough to read for hours, but not so comfortable you fall asleep.
I like my reading room to be clean and bright, preferably with rows of books to inspire me. It needs to be quiet and peaceful—though some people may like a little bit of social noise such as a coffee shop or used book store. I usually prefer silence or some light classical, improvisational jazz, or mountain music. Most any instrumental music will do so long as it’s elegant, medium to fast paced, and complex. The purpose of music, for me, is to stimulate any part of my brain that’s not engaged in the mechanics of reading (eye-movement, attentiveness, posture, etc.). Music in the room can help keep me alert and help generate a pleasant, thoughtful mood.
And of course, you will need a side table to set your huge cup of coffee (or tea, or water, or single malt whiskey).
9. A Reading Chair & Footrest
What reading room is complete without a reading chair? Maybe you like to read sitting yoga-style on the floor, or hanging upside down from the chandelier. If those float your metaphysical boat then good for you. For most of us, a reading chair is the better way to go.
When selecting a reading chair, preferences differ, but make sure it’s comfortable for you to sit in for hours. And make sure there’s a footrest, stool, coffee-table, ottoman, or stationary pet so you can put your feet up. A good chair and footrest allow you to change body positions to ensure blood flow and reduce stiffness.
The chair needs to have a seat-back. No stools. Otherwise you’ll find yourself hunching forward for lack of back-support. Your back needs to be touching the seat back comfortably while your knee pit is touching the front end of the chair. In other words, the seat of the chair needs to fit your body. If the seat of the chair is too long, you’ll feel like the chair is swallowing you. You’ll be slouching to read and eventually, you will probably fall asleep as the chair cocoons around you. If the seat is too short or hard, you risk poor circulation where the seat cuts into your thighs. The right reading chair will prevent both you and your legs from falling asleep.
A good reading chair should suit your comfort preference, balancing firmness and temperature to your liking. Leather chairs, for example, can absorb and retain body heat, becoming uncomfortably hot over time. Or if your reading room is the front porch, you may find a metal chair gets too cold in the winter time. Also, make sure the arm rests are high enough to keep you upright and alert, and they are wide enough for your arms.
My reading chairs are reclining loungers, with a medium height side table. I have an office chair too, but that one is really meant for my work day. It’s a bit too mobile for long reading sessions. Everything on it is adjustable. It rolls. It rocks. It spins. It’s designed well for when I’m fidgety and active. But as far as reading chairs go, it’s not my first choice. A good chair, for me, helps keep me in place, without distraction.
Also, and I don’t know why this is the case, but some chairs and couches are downright slippery. One minute you’re engrossed in your novel, and the next minute you’re halfway to the floor. You’ll need to adjust your posture ever so often anyway, and even the best chairs can sometimes cause this phenomenon. One solution is to wear clothes with a bit of friction, such as jeans instead of running shorts, or cargo shorts instead of Crisco oil. Seriously though, if your chair keeps rejecting you like that, perhaps it’s not working out between you two. Just move on. There are better chairs in the sea, I mean, the furniture store.
10. A Reading Light
There’s something iconic about medieval scholars or colonial fathers reading late night by candle light. But, they also died blind in their 30’s from gout-scurvy. In the era of modern medicine, we now know that inadequate light causes eye strain and headaches, and is generally bad for your eyes. Not to mention, low light can make it hard to read, and put you to sleep.
Your reading room needs good clear lighting so you can see clearly without eye strain. The lights need to be positioned so they aren’t in your direct line of sight while you read. Otherwise you’ll get sun spots and find yourself constantly and irritably changing positions. Also, you want to avoid spotlighting, where only the book is lit but everything else is dark. That contrast also causes eye strain.
In terms of height, a good reading light needs to be above your line of sight for reading. Style expert, Emily Henderson, recommends a floor lamp between 50-60 inches off the ground, with a dimmer switch and no glare (see, “How to Choose The Perfect Reading Chair”, paragraph 5).
If you read at a desk or table, you’ll more likely need a lamp. A crane-style desk lamp will give you some options, so you can adjust your lighting whenever you need to change your posture or book placement. I use a crane lamp at the office. But at home I have a nice high lumen table lamp with shade. Together with overhead lighting, the crane lamp or table lamp work just fine for me.
Jessika Banke of 1000 Bulbs: Lighting Blog cites another factor for reading lights: surface glare. If you have reflective surfaces like mirrors or glass near your lights, these can help or hurt your lighting depending on placement. Light will glare off of reflective surfaces so make sure the glare is diffused harmlessly or directed away from your line of sight. Used correctly, mirrors and glass can help brighten up a dark room. Used incorrectly, they’ll burn you alive with laser rays.
11. Pen or Pencil and Optional Highlighter
Many readers can enjoy easy and hard books, simple and complex books, chewing through articles, short stories, and poetry often without taking notes or underlining anything. But eventually, every serious reader digs into a challenging book where reading comprehension is as important as it is difficult. The book is too complex to be understood in a light passing reading. It’s going to take more than just a casual leafing to master this material, or even to process it effectively
“When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it—which comes to the same thing—is by writing in it.” Adler & Van Doren, How to Read a Book (1972), 49.
For these reasons, the most important single tool for serious readers is a pen or pencil. I always have a pen or pencil handy when I’m reading, even when it’s light reading. You never know when you’ll come across a great quote or a clever idea that you’ll want to remember. With a pen or pencil handy, you can underline key ideas, quotable quotes, and summary statements in the text. You can write comments, critiques, and numbered lists in the margins. You can write chapter summaries at the end of chapters. Or you may keep a character list, a timeline, or a list of abbreviations in the front pages, or develop an index in the back pages. A highlighter is not as necessary, but it offers a distinct advantage that you can’t get with pen or pencil. Yellow highlighting is invisible to most black & white copy machines. When you are making copies of a book page, and you don’t want your personal notes to clutter up the page, you can still use a yellow highlighter to underline, circle, or star items on the page, and it won’t show on the copies. Blue, green, and pink highlighting still leaves a faint shadow in copies. And, of course, ink and pencil lead show up clearly in copies. But yellow highlighting is usually invisible to the copy machine.
12. Scrap Paper
Maybe you have some deep commitment to fancy bookmarks. That’s cool, I guess. But scrap paper works just as well, if not better. Scrap paper is good for several reasons. First, the task of a book mark is the lowest tech skill on the planet and should cost absolutely no money. If you spend actual money on bookmarks, well just know that you could have fed an orphan somewhere with that $5.99 skinny gimmick. (Or a whole orphanage with this one.) Second, scrap paper is usually lying around nearby whenever I realize I’m done reading. It’s handy. Third, you can also mark different spots in the book by tearing the scrap paper into smaller book marks. Amazing! You wouldn’t want to do that with your precious Princess Leia metal bookmark, would you?
Fourth, and most importantly, serious readers should be recording their interactions with the book. There are limitless ways to use your very own scrap paper during your reading. You may keep track of character names and plot lines. You can record words to look up later. You can write down questions. You may record ideas for a book report you’ll be writing later. You may even be graphing out written descriptions of buildings or machines in the book to give you a mental image of what the author is describing. I use my scrap paper for any external ideas that come to me while reading. Anything directly related to the book gets recorded in the margins, or in the front or back of the book. But sometimes the book will inspire me with my own phrase or idea. I’ll record that on my paper. And if you went through my library right now, you’d probably find several books with “honey-do” lists and shopping lists because I remembered something in the middle of a good reading session.
Now I live in the computer age just like you do. So I know that everything you can do on scrap paper you can do on your computer too, and probably faster. But computers cost more, they’re jam packed with distractions, they’re wi-fi dependent, and computers are slowly blinding you with “computer vision syndrome.”
Beyond the computer screen, the keyboard seems to impact learning too. One study by Michael Friedman of Harvard University suggests that, compared to students who type their notes, handwriting class notes correlates with higher GPA. We’re not quite sure why hand-writers test better. Some suggest that handwriting engages a different part of the brain. Other think that students who read on their computers are faced with more distractions. Still others think typers tend to just “copy” notes onto the screen, while handwriting is slower, forcing hand-writers to interpret concepts into fewer words. Essentially, handwriters “chew their food” more than the keyboarders and so they get more nourishment from the meal. Regardless of why, handwriting has some distinct advantages that make it a valuable little tool for your reading time.
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These 12 tools, and a little work on your part, can make for a great education. These tools can help build your reading hobby into a reading lifestyle. But like any tool, the real power is in the craftsman. It’s up to you to put these tools to good use. So go get a hot beverage, find a comfortable chair, and kick off your shoes. Happy reading!